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Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III

Barbara Drescher wraps up her 3-part series on the difference between rationality and intelligence. It is recommended that you first read part 1 “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and part 2 “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational.

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Donald Prothero
Science Affirmers

Donald Prothero describes encouraging science-based developments on the California political stage.

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In the 100th episode of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters, DNA researcher and author Bryan Sykes discusses the research behind his landmark book The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times; plus, thoughts and reflections on 100 episodes of MonsterTalk, including hearing from many listeners about their own favorite monsters…

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Dr. Todd Disotell on his various appearances on cryptozoology television shows as the DNA expert
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James “The Amazing” Randi on the story of Tina Resch and the paranormal phenomena known as a poltergeist
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Scott Herriott, host of The Bigfoot Show, on his personal quest to find Bigfoot—and the people he’s met in that search
Sasquatch: Ketchum If You Can
Dr. Todd Disotell on Melba Ketchum’s Sasquatch DNA research
The Warren Omission
Joe Nickell and Steven Novella on the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren and demonic forces in Rhode Island
Speak of the Devil
Robert M. Price on the biggest and most well known villain in Western culture: Satan
Monsters in America
Dr. Scott Poole on the history of monsters from colonial America to modern times
Fangs That Go Bump in the Night
Richard Sugg on his fascinating research into historic vampire cases

Jamy Ian Swiss in a photoshoot, at the home of Michael Shermer, after the 2015 Skeptics Society Conference, “In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity.” If you missed the conference, be sure to check out our post-conference report.

About this week’s eSkeptic

The human tendency to organize information even where no useful information exists appears to be hardwired into our brains. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present on article from the archives of Skeptic magazine issue 5.1, from 1997 wherein professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss discusses critical thinking as a way of protecting ourselves from the threat of deception.

Jamy Ian Swiss professional magician, a co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics; a co-founder of the New York City Skeptics; has spoken and performed across the U.S. on behalf of the Center For Inquiry; has been a contributor to Skeptic magazine; is a co-producer and on-stage host of the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism; has presented or performed annually at James Randi’s “The Amazing Meeting” since its inception in 2003; and is a past Senior Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation for which he has served as a blogger, creator of the Honest Liar video commentaries, and continues to help administer the foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge.

The Limits of Critical Thinking

by Jamy Ian Swiss

The recent self-inflicted deaths of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult raises challenging questions for skeptics. We are tempted to point in horror and issue our own doomsday admonitions: “Warning! Danger! These are the hazards of belief in UFOs and other goofy stuff! Beware! Lack of critical thinking skills equals madness equals death!” If only these particular victims had read Randi’s Flim-Flam!, they might be living, productive members of society today.

Or maybe not.

My experience with deception has proven to me that the human brain is evolutionarily programmed to be readily manipulated, whether by the likes of itinerant conjurors like myself and James Randi or by virulent megalomaniacs like Marshall Herff Applewhite. The human tendency to organize information even where no useful information exists appears to be hardwired into our brains. It was there for the first aboriginal rain dance, and it’s here today for the most contemporary forms of magical thinking. That tendency to organize, to look ahead and be creative and surmise from thin evidence is a distinctly human trait, as responsible for the greatness of the human condition as it is for its follies and failings. Our human “big brain” is an accident of evolution that may well be our salvation or undoing as a species, with its abilities to invent, create, explore and imagine, or to become addicted, depressed, or believe incredibly dangerous ideas in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

When we see the apparently placid willingness of the Higher Source cult members to fulfill their grisly task of self-destruction, it is difficult to view them as victims. Considering the patently ludicrous ideas the cult based its belief system on, it’s tempting to write the followers off as cranks who were victims only of their own willful stupidity. But the phenomenon of cultism is characterized by distinctly manipulative practices of recruitment and maintenance that must be considered independently of the particular belief system they happen to be promoting. Toxicly effective cult leaders like Herff Applewhite will always produce followers who swear to their willing allegiance and free choice just as the observer of a magic trick will swear he never looked away the whole time the magician’s spoon was magically bending. Both victims are certain they had all the information necessary to make a capable judgment.

The issue of psychological manipulation is a graduated continuum, from the person fooled by the spoon-bender to the cult victim controlled to the point of suicide. But if the cult member is a victim of a psychological predator, what about those in the free marketplace of ideas who elect to repudiate conventional medicine and sign on with a homeopathic practitioner? The wiring flaws of the human brain notwithstanding, isn’t the homeopathy user a victim of willful ignorance?

Such individuals have to be given full responsibility for their lives to muck about with as they wish. We are overwhelmed by such examples of “epistemological hedonism,” i.e., if it feels good, believe it. Education doesn’t protect those who believe irrespective of facts and information. Those who become hostile and defensive the moment we question, for example, the concept of astrology do so because such questions challenge their entire view of world and self, not simply—as skeptics are inclined to consider it—the specific facts concerning a narrow subject matter, easily disproved. As skeptical educators we must do more than simply provide cautionary signposts detailing a shopping list of road hazards labeled astrology, ufology, and a host of other pseudologies. We recognize that we must encourage broad-based thinking skills to help inoculate people against malicious crackpottery. That training must begin early in life, because it is the rare adult who comes to recognize the logical flaws in their own longstanding belief system. Our task is to teach the young—along with anyone else who will listen—to think for themselves, so that they can use these skills throughout their lives. Rational inquiry isn’t merely an academic exercise or a chore that protects us from danger. Critical thinking enhances individual responsibility by liberating us to assess risk and embrace informed choice and thereby more fully savor the human experience. Unfortunately, thinking will never be foolproof protection against the threats of deception; fools can be very determined, as can the inclination to be fooled. Thinking is merely our best chance. END



  1. BOB PEASE says:

    Flim Flam was written in 1982

    At present , critical thinking is regarded as a “disease” and inquiry as pathology.

    (“you must be a really sick puppy to even ASK a question lije that !!”)

    There seems to be no linits to tolerance except a few fiats by bogus liberals.

    sic transit

    Dr. S

  2. Dan Lynch says:

    Heaven’s Gate? Heaven forefend. They were magical thinking dingbats who just killed themselves nearly twenty years ago. Time has made them irrelevant. The “cult” of our day is Islam, tough to think of as a cult with a substantial chunk of humanity as believers. Dedicated murder Muslims have calibrated their cruelty to be such a contempt for civilization, they are inviting the rest of us to make war on the entire religion. This isn’t “epistemological hedonism,” it’s modern politics!

    Speaking of politics, here at home Right Wing Authoritarianism has seized control of the G.O.P. and everybody is still writing about “conservatives.” The simple observation that these “conservatives” hate conservationists should tell us that things are not what they seem. Denialism (climate, evolution) is authoritarian aggression as defined by Bob Altemeyer ( These people are gods, their beliefs are the gods’ Truth by definition. You can’t argue with them, you can only submit. It’s not impossible for them to take over the country if they’re the only ones who vote.

    Today’s world is very scary (see, Murder Muslim). Terrified people are violent reactionaries, they want somebody to take them back to the comfortable times of the Eisenhower administration when the queers were in their closets and the darkies knew their place.

    The infinitely variable human brain is definitely the problem. Is it also the solution?

    • Mike says:

      I see climate change denialism as little more than an intentional deception and fraud by self-conscious liars. I sincerely doubt that many of the self-styled “skeptics” have ever given serious consideration to whether AGW is actually happening. It is simply irrelevant. What matters is that as many people as possible disbelieve it. 5 minutes of reading their interminably repetitive and infantile rhetoric is enough to tell you this. And btw I am neither left-wing nor an environmentalist.

      However, when it comes to Islam, I think looking back at the history of Christianity gives us more context than do modern UFO cults and the like. Remember that millions died over absurd questions such as whether the communion host literally became the body of Christ. Remember that the Muslim world has never had any sort of sustain secularist movement. In fact seeing the effect of such secularism on the Christian world has likely made many Muslim authorities all the more determined that the same should not happen in their realm, regardless of how many must die.

  3. John Madric says:

    All great points. But interestingly, approaching the absence of critical thinking via a means of critical thinking is likely an exercise in futility. The position adopted here is merely one of duality, or arguing the polar opposites.

    One of the parallels of the thrust against illogical or rational thinking, is the “belief” that humans must be saved. For religions, it is salvation from some scary afterlife nonsense. For those like the author, people need to be saved from themselves. Both are driven by a “belief” of being right, and a strong sense that the other is wrong.

    If we were to embrace nature and life as the greater entity that it is (greater than us as we a simply a part of it), it has shown that the purpose of life is not our longevity, or triumph, or dominance, but rather the push to spread life as far as can be. Evolution, and selection based on health (mental and physical), in a natural (non human intervention), environment has proven time and again that that which performs badly will be eased out. Or in the case of dinosaurs, obliterated in one fell swoop by an unfortuitous event of the universe.

    There are stupid animals, and humans make up a proportion of those. The desire to “save” them from themselves is a common theme among all belief sets. We feel bad if we deny the right to life to all who are here. This motivation is based on how we feel rather than on a logical or rational element. For every fool that exists, we can assume that some others less foolish are denied the potential to be born – among those missing perhaps another Einstein or a Mozart.

    Life is brief, a mere speck of time in terms of the universe. It matters a great deal whilst we are alive, but thankfully once it ends there no suffering, save for those who remain and are emotionally disrupted. It is this fear of living pain of those left behind that drives the illogic of both ideologies discussed here. Fear is everything to religion, politics, science, and even when immersed into rational thinking.

    The thing about belief sets is that we don’t know which ones we have. We can often see that of the other, but few have the “wisdom” to know themselves to that degree. In the meantime, many have an emotional reaction, and simply mistake that for a thought.

    • Jen Dawes says:

      Well, said. The great pity as I see it, is that humanity is dragging so many other species with it, on its path to self-destruction. However, as you put it into perspective, perhaps we humans are just the cosmic calamitous event for those species, akin to the dinosaurs’ asteroid impact.

    • DanielWainfleet says:

      to John Madric : how is it that fear is everything to science?

  4. John Hodge says:

    The people subject to such deception are being screened out as being less fit. This is encouraging for the rest of us.
    I wonder how the methods and beliefs these cults relate to traditional church methods and their non-scientific beliefs?

    • BOB PEASE says:

      It seems like History favors those who have “Dominionist”

      At present Scence dies not seem to hold appeal to those who are willing to die to live forever under the One Holy Powerful Almighty


  5. James says:

    Great article Jamy! (Not sure what the other commenters are blabbering about) I agree that it’s really important to focus on critical thinking and skepticism education for young people, though we should still try to teach it to adults, despite how difficult this can be. It often seems to be the ones sitting on the fence watching who will change their mind, so I still think it can b useful to have discussion and debate about these topics in public forums.

  6. Evans C. Reitman-Swiss, Esq. retired says:

    The wonderful part of Jamy’s thinking is its undulating quality, its ability to force the reader to review their current thinking with the use of critical thinking. There is no question in my mind that denies that his methods and results have influenced my own thinking. Through the years our conversations have proved educational to each of us. It does not mean that we always agree or even eventually agree, only that at any particular time a conversation will show a shift in some part of the thinking of one ir both that has been affected or influenced by the other. And still, in spite if growth and change, an article such as this one republished after so long a period is as true today as when it was written.

    to be continued in conversation with Jamy and probably a few others who will read my rearks and have pen in hand as they read, as well as on paper.

  7. John Hodge says:

    How is crackpottery distinguished from critical thought? Do we just know? Maybe what we “just know” is crackpot.
    I suggest the science answer: If our thought/model can predict outcomes, it is valid knowledge. If not it is at best speculation. If observation is inconsistent with the speculation, it is crackpot.
    Wisdom is the ability to cause outcomes.
    The one outcome we must strive for is survival. If a thought leads a group to death, it was crackpot. It would seem that an unchanging religion may have been a step along the way, but it must evolve to something better, more useful.

  8. Adrian says:

    I enjoyed the article. However, it is easy to look at others and point out their self-deception. Even those that call themselves skeptics have their own “view of world and self” and they, as well, “become hostile and defensive the moment we question [it]”. If “it is … rare [an] adult who comes to recognize the logical flaws in their own longstanding belief system” then what about me, what about you? Are we immune to self-deception, “epistemological hedonism” and confirmation bias? Critical thinking starts with self-criticism and that may be one of the hardest things to do especially when it comes to fundamental beliefs. The reason is that exactly that which should be the object of criticism is also the judge that does the criticism: our fundamental “belief systems” or worldview or grand paradigm. This leads to an inescapable conflict of interests.

    The first step is to identify one’s fundamental “belief systems” by asking the challenging of which beliefs (or “facts” or “theories”) makes one more emotional (or, using the author’s terms, “hostile” and “defensive”). The flip side, what is one more enthusiastic about? This is exactly where one is most likely to display self-deceit and blinding bias (because “live is blind” and emotions are proof of bias). The second step is to temporarily and honestly put one’s fundamental assumptions at the base of those belief systems to the side and take on the opponent’s assumptions. “Let’s say that this is not true but that instead is true. Where does this lead…?” This will take time and requires studying opponent’s reasoning (as opposed to straw men’s you’re likely to make of them) to the point that, given the new, temporary, assumptions, the opponent’s view makes sense (if it still doesn’t it means you failed at replacing the assumptions). Then you will be at a somewhat better place at assessing your own position (as well as your opponents). One of my teachers said: “as many languages you know, that’s how many people you are.” It takes getting out of your culture and live in a different one to really understand your own culture. It also takes getting out of your own worldview to understand your own worldview “bias-free” (well, actually attenuated bias). It takes that to fulfill the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”.

    You may be right about your fundamental beliefs without taking these steps but in that case you just happened to be right. Of course, you have good reasons to believe what you believe but how do you know it’s not self-deception? Raw data requires categorization and interpretation before it’s properly integrated in one’s paradigm. The mind has a phenomenal, underrated power to twist, skew, shuffle, filter out some data while overemphasizing other data, making straw men of the opposition, making distinctions or lumping together as it sees fit, etc. in an attempt to achieve consistency and provide confidence (only skeptics seem to appreciate this power even though they often fail to self-apply it). The reality is not so consistent though. An honest, neutral unbiased inquiring person will find support for both a view and its opposite and also both confirmed and falsified predictions for both views (or “predicted outcomes” as John Hodge put it). But fundamental beliefs can’t work like that. You can’t put a belief at the base of your paradigm if you are still questioning it. Therefore the mind doesn’t only apply “epistemological hedonism” but also “epistemological consistency corrections”. However, such corrections are transparent to the person involved (in other words, one is blind to them). And the support and confirmed predictions that support *my* view are labeled by me “the significant ones” and the others will be labeled “the insignificant ones” that can be safely ignored. This happens everywhere, from science, philosophy, religion all the way to sports.

    There is a myth that people (at least some of them, particularly the one’s self) are reasonable and logical. Nobody ever primarily accepts something because it’s reasonable or logical. It is always because it fits one’s existing paradigm (or a major part of it). If it doesn’t fit then it cannot be understood, it’s unintelligible and thus, it cannot be properly integrated in one’s paradigm. That’s why two people looking at the same data arrive at different conclusions, sometimes even contradictory. Therefore, one’s belief that his or her views are reasonable and logical is a sign of self-deception (as it’s the belief that the opponent’s view doesn’t make any sense – of course it doesn’t through *your* paradigm). Being reasonable is always relative to one’s premises and assumptions. Fundamental changes happen when new data points out a contradiction between two fundamental parts of one’s paradigm. Then the less significant part is discarded. This may be as hard as cutting one’s own hand off which is why sometimes such contradictions are played down or ignored. In determining what’s significant and fundamental, confidence is just one criteria. Other, more important criteria include what one likes (which takes us back to “epistemological hedonism”) and what one’s priorities and system of values are. Ultimately it is how many areas are built upon and integrated with a particular belief and the extent of pruning required by giving up that belief.

    In conclusion, critical thinking starts with discovering the pervasive assumptions one makes without realizing. Then it continues with trying out a new set of assumptions and working out their conclusions and predictions. Lastly, comparing these with one’s original ones and having the guts to make a change where a change is due.

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